How Prime Minister John Key will be remembered

Prime Minister John Philip Key (November 2008-December 2016)

Mr Key came from a state house less than 600 metres down the road from my place, son of a refugee born in the war. I attended the same high school as he did, albeit long after he had finished. Mr Key also went to the same University (a bit further down the road). After finishing at University he made his money working for Merrill Lynch and featured in adverts stroking Cheshire cats. The man who rose from a state house and went to a now defunct Primary School had become a millionaire. Where would he go next?

John Key entered Parliament in 2002, a year in which one of the most likely contenders for his job (more about that in another post), had just led National to a historic thrashing at the hands of Labour. Centrist politics apparently were not the forte of Bill English. Before very long it became obvious that he was potential leadership material. Smiling easily, disarming with his commoner approach, he was every that the man who replaced Bill English, Dr Don Brash was not – the latter was stolid, aloof and harbouring views that alienated him from women and Maori alike. He was elected as New Zealand and the world struggled with the impact of the global financial crisis that had brought European nations and the United States to a halt in economic growth.

Despite the obvious ineptness of some of his first term Ministers, who were probably still struggling with being in Parliament as they were with being in Government and holding Ministerial warrants, Mr Key’s popularity shone. Tactless bumbling by Anne Tolley over education saw her replaced after a year, whilst Gerry Brownlee – soon to come to prominence for other reasons – was rebuffed for his approach to the energy and resources portfolio where he had advocated open cast mining potentially in national parks.

Although Mr Key was recorded when still leader of the Opposition in 2007 as saying that the environment, education and economy were his priorities, it was the latter two that the changes were  most profound. He promoted himself as business friendly, energetically pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. His Minister of Finance spent his first seven years in the job trying to get the budget under control, facing challenges thrown up by the need to get a tanking economy moving, the Christchurch earthquakes among other things. A brighter future for New Zealand was the logo.

But it will be his response to the Canterbury and Christchurch earthquakes, vicious seismic events that shocked New Zealand to the core, that he will be best remembered for. In a time of darkness, despair and tragedy Mr Key showed inspirational leadership that on its own probably ensured National’s victory in 2011. Despite appointing an M.P. who believes many of Christchurch’s historic buildings to be “old dungers” to be Earthquake Recovery Minister, there will not be many national leaders who can say their response to a disaster inspired others.

As his Prime Ministership progressed some of the more controversial aspects of his leadership became clear. He quarrelled with the Human Rights Commission, suggesting that they should pull themselves into line if they want their funding maintained. Brain fades over alleged friendship with the head of the N.Z. Secret Intelligence Service, among other issues in Parliament gave the Opposition plenty of (largely ineffective)target practice, as did a number of privacy breaches by Government ministries sending huge amounts of personal data to unauthorized people.

Opposition leaders came. Opposition leaders went. But in 2011, a wily old fox reappeared – much to his horror – on the other side of the House called Winston Peters. As Labour fumbled and bumbled, New Zealand First set about becoming the chief opposition party. Determined not to have anything to do with Mr Peters initially, Mr Key eventually came to acknowledge the reasons for their return to Parliament. And the growth of the N.Z.F. caucus at the election in 2014 was the only thing stopping it being a complete catastrophe for the Opposition.

The mud from Mossack Fonesca stuck briefly, but largely slid off, thanks in part to uncritical media. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement was signed in New Zealand, but the forces mobilizing against it appear to have won a major victory, delaying it long enough for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to kill the agreement. The flag referendum born out of a sudden desire to leave a legacy by changing the flag, went the same way with 57% of voters saying no.

The other day I penned an article about Labour’s 3000 days in Opposition and how they were yet to make significant inroads into National’s support. Today I think this might be an an article on how John Key tried in 3000 days on the other side of the House to leave a legacy and wind up being remembered as an adequate, but not spectacular leader.

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